Clowns do more than lift spirits at children’s hospitals, they change brains

From The Orange County Register

By David Whiting

If you don’t believe that laughter is good medicine, then you haven’t met Dr. Billy.

You see, Dr. Billy isn’t a regular doctor. In fact, Dr. Billy isn’t even a real physician. Still, he manages to change the chemistry in the brain of a little girl stricken with cancer using nothing more than liquid soap.

OK, liquid soap and a tiny bubble wand.

Known as Billy Murray when he’s not wearing giant yellow shoes and a healthy dose of rouge on his nose, Dr. Billy leads a relatively new and growing group of trained performers called medical clowns.

Children’s Hospital of Orange County as well as Loma Linda University Medical Center in San Bernardino County launched their programs only in the last few years and already they report numerous outbreaks of happy faces.

The science is simple. When you smile, your brain fires neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine that make you feel good. And when you are sick in the hospital and feel good — even for a minute — that can be an amazing thing.

On a recent day at CHOC, Murray and fellow clown Dr. Kitty (aka, Los Angeles-based actress Katie Baker), softly blow a cluster of clear, sparkling bubbles above two-year-old Ava Rose Gomez.

As Murray gamely pokes each bubble, he sings a series of “boops,” “beeps” and “bops.”

Ava frowns. But Dr. Billy’s gentle smile is only beginning to work its powerful magic. Despite traces of cancer still in Ava’s skull, neurotransmitters soon kick in.

Little by little, Ava’s frown transforms into a crinkle. For a moment, the fresh three-inch scar on the back of her head seems to vanish. A bubble lands on her face and bursts, shooting a thousand tiny diamonds across a ray of sunlight.

Ava’s tiny smile breaks into a full-blown happy face, the likes of which her mother, Army Sgt. Rosanna Gomez, hasn’t seen for far too long.

Baker — who wears pink puffball earrings and white shoes with silver stars — explains her mission this way: “It doesn’t pay the bills, but it keeps me grounded and feeds my soul.”

On emergency leave, Gomez finds miracles and wonder.

Every kid’s dream

There are those of us who dream of joining the circus and then there are the very few who actually live the dream.

Murray, now 33, not only joined, he arguably reached the highest level of American clowning — performing more than 850 shows with the recently dismantled Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Several years ago, he performed before 20,000 people at Staples Center in Los Angeles. The other day at CHOC, he often performed for a single child.

Was the adjustment difficult?

Dr. Billy’s painted eyebrows rise up above his clear, oversized glasses and offer a quizzical look. Then, characteristically, he grins and proves the size of his audience means nothing.

“I am a clown,” Murray states. “It’s the heart of who I am and I’m always searching for that laugh and a smile whether I’m with one person or 20,000.”

His toughest time?

Murray chuckles at the memory and ties a bow around it. “Let’s just say,” he shares, “it’s not always easy when you tell your parents you’re going to be a clown.”

But for Murray there never was any other profession.

Growing up in New Jersey, Murray’s parents took their son to the circus every year. There’s even a photo of Murray as a little boy astride a fake tiger — and, yes, it’s a Ringling tiger.

Every chance he got, he slipped into his father’s big yellow sneakers, painted his nose red with his mother’s lipstick and clomped around the house. Soon, he was performing for neighborhood kids. Next, he added gymnastics to his repertoire.

In high school, Murray joined a cheerleading squad that won four national championships. After high school, he graduated from New York Goofs clown school where he mastered costume design, makeup, how to create a character.

Eventually, he moved to Hollywood where he worked as a “Who” at Universal Studios. Then his big break arrived: an invitation to join the Ringling Bros. clown college and go on two worldwide tours.

During and after Ringling, the 5-foot-2 clown also squeezed in playing Peter Pan at Disneyland and took on a four-week class in medical clowning.

Sydney Sigafus, a Santa Ana student and self-described “cancer warrior” who battled the disease at CHOC through high school, explains the relief that Dr. Billy and Dr. Kitty provide: “When you’re a teenager, you’re expected to handle everything like an adult and clowns make you feel like a kid again.”

In the midst of rounds at CHOC, Dr. Billy shares what might as well be his own Hippocratic Oath: “Use laughter for good.”

Medical magic

Skyler Gerdes is 12 days old, but on this day it appears the baby boy won’t be coming home anytime soon.

Almost immediately after Skyler was born, he started suffering seizures.

I figure the baby is too young for Dr. Billy and Dr. Kitty to visit with — and, naturally, I am wrong.

As with nearly all medical clown visits, the visits aren’t just about children. Spreading happiness is good for adults as well, especially parents struggling with a child in the hospital.

As I chat with Skyler’s father, Paul Gerdes of Huntington Beach, I suddenly hear one of my least favorite bands, Alvin and the Chipmunks. But, wait, this is live.

“The teenie, weenie spider,” Dr. Billy and Dr. Kitty sing in perfect two-part chipmunk harmony, “went up the water spout.”

I can’t report if the baby smiled. But I can report that if he didn’t, tiny Skyler was the only human in the room who managed a straight face.

Back in the hallway, Murray adds of clowning, “It also gives the parents permission to take a break.”

In the oncology ward at CHOC, Dena Munoz gazes at her eight-year-old daughter with stage IV cancer and agrees with Dr. Billy. “It’s a nice break and a blessing.”

For the last seven months, Munoz’ daughter, Janelle Flores, has battled the disease with the support of Mom as well as the rest of her family and friends. But, of course, it’s not just about sharing a battle. It’s also about sharing pain.

But when Murray, who lives in Anaheim, and Baker, who grew up in Irvine, walk into the room, Janelle ducks under a white bedsheet. Munoz whispers in my ear that more than anything, her daughter was proud of her long, thick hair.

“She wouldn’t,” Mom quietly confesses, “let me cut it.”

Now, however, the third-grader’s hair is nearly gone after a series of chemo treatments. Yet slowly and then with ever more gusto, Janelle peeks out from under her bedsheet, carefully keeping her head covered.

In a flash, the medical clowns don pink, orange and yellow head scarves to better blend with Janelle. Dr. Kitty holds up a thumb, blows and the thumb glows blue-purple.

Soon, Janelle is laughing with Dr. Billy and Dr. Kitty about whether the little boy in the room is really her two-year-old brother, Daniel, or a miniature version of her grandfather.

“This brings her out of her depression,” Munoz shares of the medical clowns’ antics. “It also helps her fight and she wants to be a fighter.”

We step out of Janelle’s room and Dr. Billy and Dr. Kitty dance down the hallway, always in character and always spreading joy.